Not just a readiness exercise
(Introduction for the US publication)
In 2015 alone, when the writing of the play commenced, over 800,000 refugees arrived in the Greek islands, according to a research issued by the UNHCR(Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). In case of an emergency departure from a country in crisis a person usually has at her/his disposal a very limited amount of time, in order to prepare her/his exit. When you suddenly have to leave all at once, and even maybe forever, from your country, what is it that you take with you? A photograph, a jacket, a whistle?
Just before the commissioning of the play by the Royal Court Theatre, I had visited Lesvos, an island very close to Turkey’s coastline, from where most immigrants, mainly Syrians, passed through on their way to Europe and the West. I went to several places linked with immigrants, as well as to the Reception and Identification Centre (R.I.C.) in my effort to comprehend this newly developed situation. In a landfill, I found suitcases -that once belonged to immigrants who had been robbed- open and tossed, and all around laid children’s clothes, ancestors’ photographs and various personal items, which even though valued by the immigrants, were, nonetheless, considered to be merely junk by their robbers.
What is value and what is the import of things? What is the value and the importance of things in different cultures? What do the same things mean to different people? What is the rationale that makes people take specific things along with them, while leaving all the rest behind?
By writing the play, I decided to set an experiential performance using another ‘category’ of people. I asked from twelve Greeks, ten adults and two children – one of which was my 10-year-old daughter – to bring on the stage and justify the things they would take along with them, should they be obliged in a few hours to leave the country for a long period of time, or even forever. The performance took place in January 2016 in Athens (Beep Theatre), under the title “Readiness Exercise”. I promised the participators that I would include in the play at least one of the objects they would each present. Keys, house contracts, books, cooking recipes, board games… I also found myself in the same frame of mind, and started going around my house, looking at the thousands of piled things in our household in a different eye, and trying to think of what I would take along with me.
Inspired by my small sample from the things that would be chosen by western world’s citizens, as well as from the things selected by Syrians and other refugees coming to the West, I continued working during the following months“The Things You Take With You”. This is the second polyphonic play I write, after the “I Want A Country”. Both of these plays retain, for me at least, the sense of the ancient tragedy, where the emblematic protagonists are absent, though, and are instead replaced by the chorus, the crowd.
The play you have in your hands was translated by a playwright I love, Alexi Kaye Campbell, and an almost half-an-hour piece from it was presented in theRoyal Court Theatre in June 2016, within the framework of LIFT/On The Move. It was directed by Richard Twyman, and its only set was a suitcase in the middle of the stage, in front of an electrified audience, which was seated only a breath away from the actors. I think this was the performance that also led the Royal Court Theatre to commission the translation for the rest of the play as well, which was presented in April 2017 for the first time in its entirety, in an impromptu performance in the V&A Museum, London, under the guidance of director Tim Supple, within the framework of Dash Squat.
Personally, I have considered several times leaving my country, which is currently in a deep financial and social crisis. Each year, I feel that I may have more and more reasons to do so. I am definitely not the only one; besides, how many other geographical areas on the planet do they not find themselves in a similar or worst situation? I do not know whether I will be ever forced, directly or indirectly, to truly leave, and leave everything behind me, I hope not. One thing is for sure, I now know which are the things I will be taking along with me, and mainly why that is –for what it matters.